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Ancient Egypt: Household economics - Making ends meet:

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Household economics: Making ends meet


Merchants El Kab, New Kingdom
Source: C.R. Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien Vol. V

    A large part of ancient Egyptians were peasants, living on whatever was left of their produce after rent and taxes had been extracted. Most of the rest were workers who were paid wages which barely sufficed to keep them and their families alive. Scheidel [27] suggested the following annual requirements for a working class family in Roman Egypt, the "Respectability basket" containing the quantities needed not to go hungry and escape deprivation, i.e. live a life of 'respectability', while the "Subsistence level basket" did little more than prevent starvation:
 “Respectability basket”  Subsistence level basket 
Cereal182 kg of bread172 kg of grain
Beans or lentils 52 l20 kg
Meat26 kg5 kg
Oil5.2 l5 l
Cheese5.2 kg
Eggs52 pieces
Wine68.25 l
Soap2.6 kg1.3 kg
Linen5 m3 m
Candles2.6 kg1.3 kg
Lamp oil2.6 l1.3 l
Fuel5.0m BTU2.0m BTU
Housing would have made up five to ten percent of the total household expenditure. In pre-Roman times such a list would not have included cheese–consumption of milk and milk products was very low–soap, which had not been invented yet, and wine–the popular drink in pre-Roman times was beer. Eggs, too, appear to have played but a very small part in their diet and meat consumption may well have been lower. Fish should probably be substituted for the food items not available in pharaonic times.
    In Roman Egypt an unskilled labourer could supply between seventy and ninety percent of his family's basic needs on his own, the rest would have to be made up by the wife and the children; but even with all the family contributing, an unskilled labourer could have achieved little more than preventing his family from starving.[21]
    Too few data are available about the situation of the peasants, but it is doubtful whether they were better off than the wage earners, concerning whom records are slightly more abundant, and these reflect living conditions far removed from those in an ancient Cockaigne.


    Until the middle of the first millennium BCE no coined money at all was used in Egypt, or anywhere else for that matter. Exchanges were concluded using the values of services or commodities. These were often grain, but later increasingly metal rings of fixed weight, a sort of proto currency:
Behold, I have sent you 24 copper deben through Sihathor for the lease of the land.
Letter of Seqanakht, 11th dynasty
Translated from Pharaos Volk by T.G.H.James
Seqanakht wrote 'copper deben' rather than 'deben of copper' which seems to indicate that he sent 24 copper pieces of one deben weight each.
    But during the New Kingdom metal rarely changed hands, though it was often used as a base for evaluation and comparison.
What he was paid for the painting of a coffin: Weaving of a garment, worth 3 seniu, 1 sack worth ½ sack of corn, [22] 1 mat with coverlet worth ½ seniu, 1 bronze vessel worth ½ seniu.
Receipt from Deir el Medine
New Kingdom
A seniu, apparently one twelfth of a deben [11], was about 7.6 grammes of silver, equal to almost 8 deben of copper at New Kingdom rates.
    The vast majority of Egyptians existed at subsistence level. The basic needs of a person living in a warm country like Egypt are minimal: water, food, a simple shelter and some clothing. And the workmen were paid little more than such a minimum: during the Old Kingdom the daily ration or wage was ten loaves of bread [12] and two jugs of beer.
    Better information can be had about the New Kingdom. A sack of corn [22] containing 77 litres of wheat weighed about 58 kg and was valued at two deben of copper. At Deir el Medine, where workers were presumably rather better remunerated than elsewhere, the corn [22] rations they received on day 17 of the second month of winter, Year 29, were as follows [14]:
  sacks of corn [22]
per month
worth in
copper deben [15]
kg of corn
per day
    Cereal based foods were the base of alimentation, and wages were paid to a large part in grain, but other goods are also mentioned, such as fruit and vegetables, fish, clothes and the like. A great deal of these rations was consumed by the workers and their families [19], and little surplus remained with which to acquire other necessities, let alone luxuries.
    According to the Zenon papyri, during early Ptolemaic Period the wages of an unskilled worker were about one obol (one twelfth of a kit) a day [17], but a man named Kleon paid his workers two and a quarter obols per day day some time between 256 and 248 BCE. [23]


    In Egypt's command economy [2], based on the collection and redistribution of much of the agricultural produce not directly consumed by the producers themselves, prices remained stable for great lengths of time and market forces had only a marginal influence on them during times of strong government and little social mobility.
    One should not imagine a system where prices were fixed by a central authority, with directives sent to merchants and state inspectors descending upon weekly markets to check on prices. These were probably agreed upon by vendor and buyer after bargaining, with traditional prices as guidelines.
    As is the case in any deeply conservative society, one was expected to do the right thing, right meaning whatever had been done for generations and belonged therefore to the correct order of things, sanctified as maat. Of course, people profited to varying degrees, but these differences were generally accepted by the populace: Everybody enjoyed a part of the country's wealth which could be quite small, as long as the distribution was seen to be fair.
    Thus ancient custom and not momentary advantage and greed dictated prices and wages much of the time. If there was a shortage of some commodity, prices did not rise until only the wealthiest were able to pay them. Instead of becoming unaffordable to the poor because of the expense, it became unavailable to the lowly because of the precedence higher ranked individuals enjoyed. The outcome was the same: the poor had to do without.
    The list below reflects New Kingdom prices of a number of commodities in copper unless otherwise stated. Copper was worth approximately one hundredth of its weight in silver during the New Kingdom. Ten copper deben would have equalled one kit of silver. There were wide fluctuations due to varying sizes, quality etc, and prices were affected by the passage of time.
1 sack of wheat (c.58 kg)1 to 2 debenDuring the latter part of the 20th dynasty, grain prices rose to between 8 and 12 deben, falling to 2 after the end of the New Kingdom. Only corn prices fluctuated thus strongly. [10]
1 sack of barley2 deben
1 artaba of grain (27 litres)1½ drachmas (¾ kit)Ptolemaic Period [17]
1 litre of oil1 debenDeir el Medina [9]
1 jug of olive oildeben[5]
1 container of fresh fat30 deben[4]
1 loaf of bread 0.1 debenDeir el Medina
1 litre of beer ½ deben
1 cake 0.2 deben
1 litre of wine 1 debenDeir el Medina
1 thigh of a wendju cow seniu, about 30 deben
1 bundle of vegetables½ deben[5]
50 fish2 debenDeir el Medina
1 bronze kebet vessel20 deben
1 bronze gai vessel16 deben
1 pesdjet vessel3 goldunits
1 bronze jar18 deben (12/3 kit of silver)18th dynasty
1 bronze cup5 deben[7]
1 wooden sqr container2 deben[3]
1 leather bucket3 deben[3]
1 basket4 deben[4]
1 big spear2 deben20th dynasty
1 normal speardeben20th dynasty
Garments etc
1 linen sheet33 deben (31/3 kit of silver)18th dynasty
10 shirts of fine linen4 kit of silver18th dynasty
1 shirt5 deben
1 shirtdebenDeir el Medina [9]
1 smooth DAj garment30 deben[4]
1 smooth dAjw garment11 deben[4]
1 smooth sDj.t garment10 deben[4]
1 kalasiris20 deben
1 dAjw garment20 deben[7]
1 pair of sandals2 deben[4][5]
100 cubits of rope1 deben of silverNew Kingdom [24]
1 razor2 debenDeir el Medina
1 razor1 deben[7]
1 mirror6 debenDeir el Medina
1 fly-swat1 debenDeir el Medina
1 glass-pearl necklace    5 deben
1 amulet1 deben
1 house10 shat (5/6 deben) of copper5th or 6th dynasty [31]
1 house2 deben of silver22nd dynasty [30]
1 woven mat1 deben
1 bed12-20 deben
1 chair20 deben
1 chair, 1 foot-stool, 1 post13 deben[3]
1 table15 deben
1 chest1 deben[3]
1 sleeping mat (?)2 deben[5]
1 DpH-wide plank of aS wood 1 kit of copper20th Dynasty [8]
1 Drat plank of aS wood2 kit of silver per cubit length 20th Dynasty [8]
1 bird¼ debenDeir el Medina
1 goatdebenDeir el Medina
1 donkey25 deben
1 donkey40 debenRamses III [6]
1 cowup to 140 deben
1 month's rent of a cow4 artabas of wheatGraeco-Roman Period [28]
1 bull120 deben
1 bull50 debenDeir el Medina [9]
1 ox60 debenUnder Ramses XI [8]
lease of 1 arura [1]about 5 deben11th dynasty
1 arura0.17 deben of silver18th dynasty [16]
1 arura0.5 to 0.6 deben of silver21st dynasty [16]
1 arura0.1 deben of silver21st dynasty
Funerary equipment
1 linen shroud50 deben (5 kit of silver)18th dynasty
1 simple wooden coffin20-40 deben
1 scribe's coffin200 deben
1 simple ushabti0.02 deben
1 set of simple canopic jars   5 deben
1 'Book of the Dead'    100 debenDeir el Medina
1 wooden statuette10 deben
1 mina of myrrh40 drachmas of silverPtolemaic period [25]
1 slave girl4 deben of silver18th dynasty
1 ordinary male slave3 deben 1 kit of silver21st dynasty
32 slaves (male and female) 15 deben, 1/3 kit of silver22nd dynasty [30]
Metal(Ratios are approximate)
1 kit of gold2 kit of silver : 1 to 2Until the 20th Dynasty [8]
1 kit of silver10 deben of copper : 1 to 100  Until the 20th Dynasty
1 kit of gold200 kit of copper : 1 to 200Throughout the New Kingdom [10]
1 kit of silver6 deben of copper : 1 to 60Late 20th Dynasty [8]
1 kit of silver33 deben of copper : 1 to 330 Ptolemaic Period
1 deben of silver609 ½ deben of copper : 1 to 609 ½ 2nd quarter of the 2nd century BCE [26]
1 Hd1 deben of 20 silver drachmas3rd century BCE [29]
1 Hd1 kite of 2 silver drachmas3rd century BCE [29]
1 Hd1 deben of 20 copper drachmas2nd and 1st century BCE [29]
1 gold hemidrachma1½ silver tetradrachmas : 1 to 10Alexander the Great [17]
1 gold stater (60 drachmas)15 silver tetradrachmas [18] : 1 to 12Ptolemy I [17]
1 gold octodrachma100 silver drachmas : 1 to 12.5Ptolemy II [17]

Peasants pulling plough El Kab, New Kingdom
Source: C.R. Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien Vol. V

    Given these wages and prices one ceases wondering why ordinary Egyptians sat on the floor, slept on mats, walked barefoot, took off their scanty clothing in situations where it might get ruined, and sometimes pulled the ploughs themselves because they could not afford a cow. [21]

[1] The length of the lease is unknown. 1 arura: setjat, about 2700 m², which might have yielded about 150 kg of wheat annually.
[2] command economy: using modern nomenclature for ancient phenomena and institutions is always misleading. The ancient Egyptians did not plan their economic activities in the way the unlamented Soviet Union did, not having the necessary statistical information. (Some people will say, neither did the Soviet Union.) Production, trade and consumption followed traditional patterns which had proved themselves in the past. Planned action was probably mostly restricted to the levying of taxes, generally in the form of grain, its storage and redistribution, on a local or regional level.
[8] According to R. J. Leprohon, 2001. This ratio was much lower than in other ancient cultures. It may have reflected the relative scarcity of silver in Egypt, which did not have any silver mines of its own - always remembering that the principle of supply and demand seems to have had little influence on the egyptian economy.
[11] The Egyptians generally used a decimal system. The seniu may be the result of Mesopotamian influence. It disappeared during the latter stages of the New Kingdom.
[12] It has been proposed that in the Old Kingdom the mention of loaves of bread refers not necessarily to loaves themselves but rather to their value, a kind of currency of account. [13]
[15] the deben was about 91 grammes of copper
[16] K. Kitchen, Early Canaanites in Rio de Janeiro and a 'corrupt' Ramesside land-sale, 1990
[17] Brian P. Muhs, Tax Receipts, Taxpayers, and Taxes in Early Ptolemaic Thebes, 2005
[18] These silver tetradrachmas were lighter than their nominal value would suggest, worth abroad only 20 instead of 24 obols. This may have been a governmental attempt at keeping the silver in Egypt [17].
[19] According to estimates the yearly consumption of wheat per family was about 22 artabas, 890 litres (Andrew Monson, 2005).
[20] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae => aaew => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Theben => Briefwechsel des Djehuti-mesu => pGeneva D 407 => Brief an Djehuti-mesu von Bu-teh-Imen
[21] Walter Scheidel in Real Wages in Early Economies: Evidence for Living Standards from 2000 BCE to 1300 CE , Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, Dissertation 2008, p.22:
Since wages for adult male workers were often so modest, labor force participation of both adult women and minors must have been high in order to fend off starvation.
During the early stages of human civilization, it was a rare economy that managed to rise beyond this bare-bones level of performance.
[22] Corn is, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the chief cereal crop of a district, in the case of ancient Egypt corn refers to wheat and/or barley—not maize.
[23] P.Col. IV 104, P.Col.Zen. II 104; APIS record: columbia.apis.p103, accessed 14th May 2009
[24] André J. Veldmeijer, "Cordage Production", in W. Wendrich ed. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, March 2009
[25] Circular letter from Apollonios to the financial officials, 19th April 111 BCE,, accessed 17th May 2009
[26] P.Tebt.1087, accessed June 2009
[27] Walter Scheidel, Real wages in early economies: Evidence for living standards from 1800 BCE to 1300 CE, Version 4.0 September 2009, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics
[28] M. Lichtheim, Demotic Ostraca from Medinet Habu, University of Chicago Press 1957, p.58. If the cow died a compensation of three stater was due.
[29] M. Lichtheim, Demotic Ostraca from Medinet Habu, University of Chicago Press 1957, p.2
[30] G. Möller, "Ein ägyptischer Schuldschein der 22. Dynastie" in Sitzungsberichte der preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Verlag der Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1921, p.302
[31] Nigel Strudwick, Ronald J. Leprohon, Texts from the Pyramid Age, Brill 2005, pp.205f.

-[14] Records of the strike at Deir el Medina under Ramses III
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